Land surveying tools and artifacts. Dimensions variable, 2020
What is known as the US westward expansion, was a meticulous process of native land appropriation, profit,
and orderly settlement that displaced most of native tribes into reservations. The government's call for
“efficient distribution of lands” meant that indigenous people were forced to abandon their ancestral territory,
while the settlers,“the chosen people of God”, were promised individual land ownership and economic opportunity
through the Homestead Act & Process. Field Surveyors were fundamental in the process of documenting
and mapping the lands prior to being sold.
The 1785 Public Land Survey System formed the basis for surveying and dividing the US western territories into
sections to facilitate the sale of land. This Survey System divided the states into township grids of 6 square miles,
which were further divided into sections of 1 square mile segments (640 acres), and these into fractions of sections.
The townships were to be sold whole, or in lots, under the price of one dollar per acre. The Land Survey System
became an organized and profitable structure that was fundamental in the occupation and privatization of native
lands during the US Westward expansion. The fact that 95% of Texas is private land is testimony of this System.
All of the objects in Measuring the Immeasurable are tools used to measure and map land. To measure means to
delimit, to reduce. Exactitude and perfection are opposed to looseness, wrongness, or roughness. What is the
exactitude of ascience that reduces the land to straight lines, numbers, and economical value? What is missed or
lost through this process? Whose rights are forgone when this happens? What are the rights of grandmother earth
and of the non-human beings that live above or below the surface? Measuring the Immeasurable opens onto these
questions and suspends these measuring objects in mid-air, floating above our heads like a wrongful collection
of useless relics.
Installation view of 'Measuring the Immeasurable'. Courtesy of MoMA. Photographs by Emile Askey.